Screw the Critics

Our scribes put down their pens and let famous people pick the year's best music.

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The holidays are all about hanging with family, savoring those last bottles of Christmas Ale, and Top 10 lists. But while Scene is all down with long-lost uncles — especially after a few of those Christmas Ales — we're all tapped out on Top 10s. So we asked some famous people to do our work for us.

The result is Scene's annual Year in Music issue, wherein rap idol Scarface, American Idol Jordin Sparks, liberal idol Al Franken, and other sort-of-well-known folks lay down their favorite tunes of '07. So make like our critics did: Sit back, let the famous guys make the picks, and argue those picks into the night. It's what the holidays are all about.

Feeling Minnesota
(Sarah Askari)

Former Saturday Night Live cast member, radio host, and New York Times best-selling author Al Franken is now campaigning for a seat in the United States Senate. But the Minnesota native isn't too busy to run down some of his favorite musical moments of the past year.

First, he says, he has a confession: "My favorite music of 2007 bears a striking resemblance to my favorite music of 1975. Also to my favorite music of 1976, 1977, 1978, etc., etc. I'm a Deadhead. That said, I do allow a few new influences into my musical consciousness every once in a while. Here's five non-Grateful Dead things I've been listening to."


"That's the format used by [Minnesota's] 106.1-FM KLCI, and it's a mix of contemporary and older country that is apparently mimicked by many Bob or Bob-like stations across the country. I love country music, because I like the unabashed melodrama."

Trampled by Turtles

"Speaking of country, I'm a big bluegrass fan. I got turned on to this band by Tom Saxhaug, the state senator from Grand Rapids. I thought it was a little suspicious that he spent most of our first meeting telling me how great their new album was. And wouldn't you know it, his son turns out to be the bass player. But the album really is great."

Fountains of Wayne

"Specifically, their song 'Better Things,' which is a cover of a Kinks tune. I think it's going to be our campaign song because of its message — Better things are up ahead."

The Grateful Volunteers

"OK, this is kind of a cheat. The Grateful Volunteers are a Dead cover band composed of some great [Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party members], who are kind enough to play at some of our events. And even kinder enough to let me sing once in a while. Specifically, 'Brokedown Palace.'"

Call Time: The Musical

"This warrants some explanation. As you know, running for Senate requires that I raise a great deal of money — especially since [incumbent] Norm Coleman has the deep-pocketed special interests on his side. So I spend hours and hours a week calling people to ask for support. To keep myself from going crazy, I've been entertaining myself and Kris Dahl — my "call-time manager" — by composing and singing thousands of songs for a musical based on call time titled Call Time: The Musical. Some songs are only 15 seconds long, such as 'I Left a Message and I Hope They Call Me Back' or 'I Don't Think That Was His Office Number (I Think That's His Home).' Most of the songs have original music, but some simply use existing tunes — such as 'Pick Up the Phone, Arlen Lundahl,' [which is sung] to the tune of 'Don't Cry for Me, Argentina' from Evita. I should probably have just put 'Springsteen' for this, huh? I really like his new album."

Phoenix Rising
(Niki D'Andrea)

Jordin Sparks has the distinction of being the youngest American Idol winner in the show's history. The 17-year-old Arizona native — whose father, Phillippi Sparks, played for the New York Giants and Dallas Cowboys — was sent home after her initial audition in Los Angeles. But she bounced back to win a second audition in Arizona and ended up at the Seattle tryouts, where she killed with a version of Céline Dion's "Because You Loved Me." She made the Hollywood Round and was ultimately crowned the sixth winner of American Idol on May 23.

Since winning, the energetic and talkative teen has been busy. First, she traveled the country from July through September as part of the American Idols Live! Tour. Then she headed straight into the studio to record songs for her self-titled debut album, which was released last month.

The CD boasts creative input from Robbie Nevil, Chris Brown, and producers Eman (Backstreet Boys, Céline Dion) and Sam Watters (Jessica Simpson). The record runs the gamut from pop to rock to R&B — much like Sparks' MP3 player. "If you see my iPod, it's the craziest mix of stuff," she says. "I like post-hardcore, country, rock, hip-hop, '80s music. I'm all over the place."

Sparks says she spent most of the summer listening to the songs she was recording for her album. But she still managed to quickly name some other tunes she's had in heavy rotation the past 12 months.


"I love her song 'I Hate That I Love You' — the one she does with Ne-Yo. The first time I heard that song, I knew it was going to be a hit. I have it on repeat on my iPod. It keeps growing on me, and I never get tired of it. I like the way their voices blend together."

Chris Brown

"I haven't heard his new CD, but two years ago, when his first CD came out, all I wanted for Christmas and my birthday was his album. I'd love to tour with him. It would open me up to his R&B audience, and it would open him up to my pop audience. We're both somewhere in the middle."

Plain White T's

"I remember hearing 'Hey There Delilah,' and it was so simple: guitar, voice, and strings. [It shows] you don't have to make a complicated song to have a hit single."

Kanye West

"Yeah, I listen to hip-hop. I hope my mom doesn't kill me. I like Kanye West and 50 Cent, and I didn't take a side in that whole battle. But I did buy [West's] Graduation, so I guess I took a side. The album is in heavy rotation on my iPod. 'Stronger' — that song is genius."

Alicia Keys

"I haven't heard all of her new album yet, but I like her new single ("No One"). Alicia Keys just amazes me. She plays piano like no other, she's got a great voice, and she writes her own songs."

Post-hardcore and screamo

"I like Silverstein and a local band called Greeley Estates that's doing really well. My favorite is a band called Dizmas. They're really good, and I love their music. They came and performed at my church, and it was really funny, because people were like, 'Are they screaming?' But I like post-hardcore, because it's really cool when you're angry. Anybody who can scream like that and not blow their voice out is amazing. It takes a lot of skill and practice to be able to do that. I can't do it."

Spirit of St. Louis
(Annie Zaleski)

Many St. Louis musicians hightail it out of the city as soon as they can — in hopes that the sunnier pastures of L.A. or the chillier climes of Chicago will be more welcoming. But except for a short stay in New Orleans, Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt founder Jay Farrar has lived in St. Louis for the past 15 years. And he's not going anywhere.

"St. Louis is still very much a city of immigrants, and that — coupled with distinctive, historic neighborhoods — makes for a good quality of life," he says. "I'd rather be where the action is percolating, as opposed to where the action is hyped and purported to be."

That low-key attitude informs Son Volt's latest album, The Search. Jaunty horns and burbling organ add soulful color to the band's trademark dusty alt-country and gentle twang. Farrar and his four-piece band toured a lot in 2007. Son Volt also released a limited-edition, extended vinyl version of The Search (called On Chant and Strum) and covered the Beatles' "Hello, Goodbye" for an ESPN commercial touting David Beckham's arrival in L.A.

The new year looks fairly busy already for Farrar: a few N.Y.C. solo shows early in the year, a Son Volt tour in the spring, and the release of another record by his side project, Gob Iron, after that.

Farrar's packed schedule probably explains why he goes out of his way to apologize that most of his favorite music of 2007 wasn't even released this year. "It usually takes six months for a new record to get to me and then another six months of really letting it sink in," he says. "And by then, it's often a different year."

Beck — "Strange Apparition"

"It seems Beck is always good to keep things interesting. I like it when he channels songs or artists. This time it's the Rolling Stones song 'Torn and Frayed' — spit back out as an idiosyncratic cautionary tale, as seen through the windshield of a Mercedes-Benz."

Jimmie Rivers — Brisbane Bop

"This CD was recorded live by the drummer. Is it western swing or hillbilly jazz?  I don't know, but to me it always sounds fresh and intriguing."

Richard Buckner — "Town"

"Richard makes good with this lyrical equilibrium-buster, fueled with a looking-back-20-years audio landscape."

Richard & Linda Thompson — Pour Down Like Silver

"This was an 'album' when it was released in 1975, and to me it represents the idea of the 'perfect album.' I always listen straight through and often listen to the whole thing twice in a row. The level of musicianship on this record is a marvel. And there is an element of mystery to it — down to the Sufi garb on the front and back covers."

Lee Hazlewood

"Plenty of incongruous instrumentation and lyrical non sequiturs to ponder. [Son Volt guitar tech] Jason Hutto and I spent the better part of a five-hour drive from Chicago soaking up a Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra compilation. We found out the next morning that he had died the same day we were listening."

San Francisco Treat
(Jennifer Maerz)

San Francisco's Kronos Quartet has charted an impressive course around the globe, commissioning more than 600 works — and releasing more than 40 records — since its inception more than 30 years ago, with composers from China, Russia, Vietnam, and Iraq. Founding member David Harrington cites an unusual source of inspiration for working with artists from other countries: American foreign policy.

Whenever the U.S. gets into a conflict or war, Harrington says, it makes him want to find out about the other country's music. It's a way of connecting to and partnering with cultures that American politics tears apart. "We are trying to be a witness to some of the things that are happening," he says. "Every concert we play is an attempt to find balance in a world that's very unbalanced."

This year, the string quartet covered Sigur Rós' "Flugufrelsarinn," performed with Tom Waits at Neil Young's annual Bridge School Benefit, shared a stage with Bollywood film-soundtrack queen Asha Bhosle, and collaborated with Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche. Kronos also released music by Polish composer Henryk Górecki and recorded The Cusp of Magic with pipa virtuoso Wu Man for release in 2008.

Harrington has an insatiable appetite for not just new music, but for the entire universe of sound. During the course of our conversation, he gushes over everything from Swedish pop-rockers Shout Out Louds and cellist Erik Friedlander to field recordings of underwater seals, southwestern beetles, and singing dogs. "If somebody really loves something, I have to find out about it," he says. "If somebody really hates something, I have to find out about it."

With tastes both esoteric and populist (The Lawrence Welk Show first inspired Harrington to pick up the violin), Kronos' leader offers a list of musicians who brought his continents a little closer in 2007.

Damon Albarn — Monkey: Journey to the West

"Damon made this fantastic [theater] piece using a Chinese legend. It's like an opera, but it has acrobatics and dance. I met Damon in July, and he's now writing a piece [for Kronos]. But that event that he and his team created was just beautiful. He's really inspiring."

Valentin Silvestrov — Bagatellen und Serenaden

"Combine John Cage's touch on the piano with Morton Feldman's touch on the piano with my granddaughter's touch on the piano, and you'll get the touch of Valentin Silvestrov. He's just exquisitely beautiful. He's from the Ukraine."

Alim and Fargana Qasimov — Music of Central Asia Vol. 6: Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan

"Alim Qasimov is one of the great singers of the world. After Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, there's Alim Qasimov. Fargana is his daughter. She's sung with him since she was a little child."

Joe Henry — Civilians

"I don't think enough people know about him. He's a great producer. He visualizes sound in a really complete way. His band is fantastic, and he's someone we'll be working with in the future."

Amiina — Kurr

"This is a group that started out as a string quartet. They're from Iceland. I think one of them is married to the keyboardist of Sigur Rós. I met them on tour, when we were in Iceland and we rehearsed with Sigur Rós. A lot of people probably wouldn't call Amiina a string quartet on recordings, because there isn't a lot of violins and viola and cello. There's a lot of other instruments and sounds."

Valgeir Sigurdsson — Ekvilibrium

"Valgeir is an amazing producer. He produced a recording that we made with Kimmo Pohjonen. I would define Kimmo as the Jimi Hendrix of the accordion. We played with Kimmo at the Brooklyn Academy of Music — opening their 25th season — and he wrote this amazing piece we did with Kimmo on accordion."

Múm — Go Go Smear the Poison Ivy

"There are so many sounds and instruments, you feel like you're discovering music. I love that feeling — like, 'Wow, I've never heard that before. What an interesting way to combine things.'"

Ruby — Misheet Wara Ehsasi

"What I love about this album is not necessarily the songs, but the sounds of the instruments. There's some strings in some of these songs that are really cool. Ruby is from Egypt. I don't really know much about her, but I just love the sound of her voice. You can think of the voice as another instrument when you don't know the language. I almost think of that as an advantage."

M.I.A. — Kala

"I love it when somebody does something and the bar just gets higher. That's what happened here. Our government is harassing a lot of people. [British-Sri Lankan M.I.A. created Kala at different locations around the world after being denied a visa into the U.S. to record.] It's getting more and more expensive for presenters to bring musicians in from Islamic countries. It's getting harder to get good information. And music is information."

Nathamuni Brothers — Madras 1974

"This is a cool record that was made on somebody's porch in India. The brothers' group is called a brass band, but it's not really a brass band. There's a certain genius in India for taking something and just making it become something else."

Joe Meek — Vampires, Cowboys, Spacemen & Spooks: The Very Best of Joe Meek's Instrumentals

"Some people will say this is cheese. I think it's cool. This is a great double CD. Before [Beatles producer] George Martin, this was the guy. But he died tragically. I think, through an accident of timing, he got overshadowed. But I love him. I feel better every time I hear 'Night of the Vampire.'"

Bettye LaVette — The Scene of the Crime

"Someone sent me The Scene of the Crime. I have a great idea — at least I like it — for an album of songs. And now I've finally heard the right voice to join us. We'll see if she might be interested."

Houston, We Have Rappin'
(Chris Gray)

A couple of days before Thanksgiving, on-again/off-again Geto Boy and Houston rap legend Scarface strolls into Hermann Park Golf Course's clubhouse clad in a white Wildcat Golf Club polo, navy shorts, and no shoes (no spikes are allowed inside). No one bats an eyelash. He is, after all, here almost every day.

But today, Scarface is here for a press conference announcing Made, his first proper album since 2002's The Fix. Face, now 37, says all he's been doing for the past five years is pretty much coaching Little League football and playing poker and golf, which he took up last year at his daughter's urging. Rapping, it seems, is now something he can take or leave.

"I really don't want to do this shit anymore," he says. Nonetheless, Scarface and his old label Rap-a-Lot have made peace, and after a one-album departure to Def Jam South, he's back home with the record company that launched his career back in the '80s. "I've seen a lot of artists fall out with their labels and be irrelevant when they come back," he says.

Scarface, though, will be relevant as long as he wants to be. "I was talking to Busta Rhymes, and he said, 'Goddamn, are you ever going to fall off? You sound like you're 16," he laughs. "I told him, I am 16. I never grew up. I do shit that kids do."

After the press conference, Face invites us to follow him onto the links for a couple of holes. He's already revealed he was a big Kiss fan growing up. These days, he listens to everyone from AC/DC and Led Zeppelin to Steely Dan and the Eagles. "And that's just my iPhone," he says.

What was your favorite music to come out this year?

"I didn't really have any. What came out this year? Did Coldplay come out this year?"

What have you been listening to?

"Radiohead. Old Radiohead."

What about the 50 Cent and Kanye albums?

"Kanye had a brilliant album this year."

What about the new Jay-Z?

"I haven't heard it yet. I bet it's pretty brilliant. I heard some of it; I think it's brilliant."

What about the 50 album?

"I didn't listen to it. Did you?"

What was the last record you got really excited about?

"Mine. Or Kanye's."

What did you like about the Kanye record?

"I liked its originality."

Are there any rock albums that came out this year that you liked?

"No one came out. Who came out?"

Well, Spoon had a pretty big record. Radiohead.

"I didn't download [Radiohead]. I want to buy it, because I really love that band."

What's your favorite Radiohead album?

"I really like [starts singing, more or less on key] 'Don't leave me hiiiiigh, don't leave me dryyyyy . . . ' I love that song."

Do you download music? Do you have an iPod?

"I have an iPod."

Do you still buy CDs?

"I buy everything that I like."

Have you ever thought about making an album with your band? [Scarface occasionally performs and plays several instruments with a 14-piece live band.]

"I want to. Contractual obligations may not allow it, but that's a big dream of mine — to be able to make an album with a rock band. I've got a rock band, the Sick Man Psycho Bastards. I'm the lead singer."

You've been playing a lot of blues lately. What kind of blues are you into?

"Old Delta blues. Muddy Waters' old plantation recordings. Robert Johnson, Blind Willie McTell, Son House."

Lightnin' Hopkins?

"That was a little later — but yeah, he's good."

What have you been recently listening to the most?

"Reggae. Peter Tosh, Bob Marley. The old one-drop reggae."

Do you go out and see a lot of music?

"No. I don't really know what's going on, man. I'm totally out of sync with what's happening right now."

L.A. Confidential
(Lina Lecaro)

Margaret Cho has starred in her own TV show, written a couple best-selling books, recorded a Grammy-nominated comedy album, and appeared in two movies based on her national tours. But the past year saw a new conquest for the Los Angeles comic: She became a viral-video queen.

Cho's sexy, traveling circus-like spectacle, The Sensuous Woman — which melds music, comedy, and burlesque, and is performed by Cho and a bunch of her pals — was a critical success in L.A., New York, and Chicago. But then a clip from the performance — showing the comedian twirling her ta-tas with awe-inspiring speed, clad in nothing but panties and tasseled pasties — was posted on YouTube and, subsequently, every blog on the net.

Cho became a national cyber sensation and a champion for voluptuous women everywhere. "I got really good at twirling those tassels," she says. "Women loved it and felt empowered. But a few straight guys were furious, because I challenge the stripper archetype."

Challenging preconceived notions and stereotypes is what Cho does. The Korean-American funny lady has always had a strong political and cultural opinion. Her work has explored not only her Asian background and upbringing, but also her views on homosexuality (currently married, she claims to be bisexual) and the government (big shocker: She's anti-Bush).

Perhaps inspired by the hubbub her half-naked gyrations caused online (but more likely just another extension of her never-ending quest to challenge the status quo), Cho's next project, Beautiful, will be a stand-up show that ponders the age-old question of what real beauty is. "Right now I am doing a big list of who I think is beautiful," she says. "It's famous people to friends to anyone who happens to catch my eye."

Surely, there'll be some musicians on the list. Cho is a lifelong music enthusiast with diverse tastes. This past year she appeared in the Dresden Dolls' "Shores of California" video and hosted Cyndi Lauper's True Colors Tour. Plus, she listened to a lot of tunes. Here are some of her faves of 2007.

Ryan Adams — Easy Tiger

"The best album of this year. I just listened to it over and over and over and over. It makes me feel like I am one of those girls who can wear a very, very short dress with cowboy boots. And I don't have to wear tights, because my legs are perfect and tan."

Girl in a Coma — Both Before I'm Gone

"So cute, so young. [I saw them] open for Morrissey, and they rocked it."

Crowded House — Time on Earth

"It's amazing. I love Neil Finn and have had a solid crush on him for nearly 23 years. I got to tell him so after their awesome show [in L.A. this year]."

The Cliks — Snakehouse

"An incredible record. I went on the True Colors Tour with them and also directed their video."

Björk — Volta

"This was in heavy rotation. I love her, and she is insanely cute. On the [CD] cover she looks really Super Mario Bros. or Donkey Kong. Her fashion sense is crazy. So cool."

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